These days, most mobile OS upgrades tend to revolve more around refining than reinventing.
That's basically been the case with Android since 2015's Marshmallow release -- and that's not to say the updates have been inconsequential.
They've just been more about adding polish to the software and finding new ways to make little things in our lives easier than radically reimagining the way we interact with our phones.
That's arguably a good thing from a user's perspective. After all, whether you're an individual Android user or an enterprise IT manager,
you don't want to be learning and dealing with entirely new interfaces every six to 12 months.
By and large, you just want devices to keep getting better within the parameters you know -- to make it simpler for you to stay efficient and productive with a minimal amount of thought and effort.
As this year's Android O release makes its way through the beta process and toward its likely-late-summer launch, we're getting a closer look at some of the ways it'll attempt to accomplish those goals.
And in addition to the more significant productivity-boosting enhancements it delivers, Android O has its fair share of small but meaningful improvements -- relatively subtle touches that'll make your phone just a teensy bit smarter.
Here are some standout examples I've encountered (and one I haven't yet encountered) during my time with the Android O beta so far.
1. Smarter Wi-Fi toggling
Figuring out how to handle a phone's Wi-Fi setting can be tricky.
Do you leave Wi-Fi on all the time so you'll always connect to networks automatically and minimize your mobile data use
or do you toggle it on and off as needed to make your device's battery last as long as possible (but then risk forgetting to make that transition much of the time)?
For most folks, there is no great answer. Android O introduces an intelligent new solution.
Within the software's network settings sits a fresh option called "Turn on Wi-Fi automatically."
Activate it, then flip your phone's Wi-Fi to off -- and anytime you're in range of a high-quality network that you've signed into and used before, your phone will then automatically turn your Wi-Fi on for you and connect.
When you're out of range, it'll turn your Wi-Fi back off.
That's the kind of automation that used to require complex configuration in third-party apps to accomplish -- something with which only power users would traditionally tinker.
Now it's becoming a simple switch within Android's own native settings, and it couldn't be easier to use.
If we could only have a similar option for Bluetooth, we'd really be set.
2. Smarter text selection
Text selection has long been a pain point on mobile devices -- moving that tiny cursor around, finding just the right start and stop points, and then figuring out what to do with the text from there. It's just not as simple as it could be.
Android O aims to make mobile text selection infinitely easier with two new features:
First, when you want to select something like an address, phone number, email address, or URL, you can just double-tap it -- and Android will automatically recognize the excerpt and figure out what you're trying to highlight without any fuss.
Second, when you select one of those types of excerpts -- areas of text that have obvious next-step actions associated with them -- Android will give you the appropriate next-step action in the post-selection pop-up menu.
So if you select a phone number, for instance, the system will detect that and then give you a one-tap shortcut to call that number right then and there.
For an address, it'll provide a direct link to open up the location in Maps. And so on.
The caveat is that I haven't been able to get this to work yet in the current beta version of Android O. Maybe it's still under development and unfinished. But it is on the way, and it's something that'll certainly be appreciated once it arrives.
3. Smarter sound selection
For all of its advanced features, Android has always made it inexplicably difficult to set up a custom ringtone or notification sound.
I can't even begin to count the number of times I've tried to walk people through the oddly complex act of copying an MP3 to your phone's storage, using a file manager to find it, moving it to a "ringtones," "notifications," or "alarms" folder, and then going back into the system sound settings to find and select it.
That may seem like child's play to those of us in the enthusiast camp, but for average users, it's an insurmountable headache.
At long last, Android O delivers a better answer. Go into the system sound settings and select the option to change your ringtone, notification sound, or alarm sound, and -- aha! -- within the list of default jingles is a handy new option to add in your own sound.
Tapping that will let you select an MP3 file from your device's local storage. Once you do, that file will appear as an option alongside all the other sound choices. All that's left is to select it.
Still missing, of course, is a simple way to edit a sound file and select a specific portion to use as a ringtone -- but hey, baby steps, right?
4. Smarter notification sizing
Ah, notifications. The line between useful and overwhelming can be so thin.
Android O attempts to make your phone's alerts a little more manageable by taking lower-priority alerts -- things that are proactively informative but don't necessarily demand your immediate attention -- and collapsing them down into a new smaller form.
That way, you can focus on what really matters at any given moment and avoid feeling bombarded with info that can probably wait.
5. Smarter navigation buttons
Android's navigation buttons are designed to help you get around the system, but with larger phones, reaching all three icons single-handedly can require some serious finger yoga.
Android O has an experimental new feature -- presently tucked away in the System UI Tuner -- that lets you adjust the navigation buttons for easier access.
You can shift them over to either side of the screen, or you can make them more compact in the center.
Another intriguing option is the ability to add an additional custom button into the mix. There's nothing terribly practical to do with it yet, but it's easy to see how it could grow into something useful.
6. Smarter lock screen shortcuts
Android lock screens can vary depending on a phone's manufacturer, but by default, the software includes two built-in shortcuts in the lock screen's lower corners: one to activate Google Assistant and give a voice command, and another to open the phone's camera.
I don't know about you, but I practically never use either of those options. About the only thing I do from my phone's lock screen is, ya know, unlock it.
Android O offers a way to make those shortcuts more useful for your own personal needs. Within the aforementioned System UI Tuner menu, you can assign a slew of custom actions to both the left and right lock screen shortcut -- everything from capturing a new photo or audio note in Keep to scanning a document into Drive, creating a new Calendar event, or setting a new reminder.
The list includes actions from individual apps installed on your phone, too, so you're bound to see even more possibilities specific to the third-party programs you rely on.
Now, is any of this going to revolutionize your life or reinvent the way you use your phone? Nope. But all of these items do have the potential to refine how you get things done and make parts of your day a little bit easier -- and when it comes to mobile technology, that extra inch can feel like a mile.
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